18 July 2013 - 5:58 pm

Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Kudos

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

Don't we all want to get a thumbs-up for our work? (Picture by 88neal88)

Don’t we all want to get a thumbs-up for our work?
(Picture by 88neal88)

Kudos is like happiness: a slippery fish to catch. It’s a fluffy one to consider, but I’ll try to break it down here as best I can. Some time ago, I wrote a post that compared traditional and self-publishing, and their relative legitimacies, and I’ll be building on that here.

Common Attitudes

There’s no doubt that being traditionally published is a reliable way to prove to the world hey, I’ve made it as an author. You tell people you’re a published author and they’ll automatically think that you mean ‘in a traditional deal with a publishing house and now I have shiny books in every store you can shake a wallet at’.

There’s a level of respect that comes with it, because of all the gatekeepers you had to get past in order to get your precious manuscript out of your sticky hands, through a printing press, and onto a shop floor. As if writing the book in the first place wasn’t hard enough.

Meanwhile, self-publishing is still seen in many eyes as cheating, lazy, and the sign of a bad writer. It’s the last resort of writers who couldn’t get a publishing deal (that is, who weren’t good enough to get one). Self-published books are second-rate, bad quality, unedited wank someone decided to shove out into the world to make a few pennies and drag down the good name of literature everywhere.

True or not, this is what common opinion seems to be. If you tell someone you self-published a book, a little crack appears in their mental image of you. (If you tell them your novel is vampire romance with fairies and BDSM, that image will probably shatter entirely.)

However, this is changing. As self-published books become more common and more people read them, these attitudes are being worn away. Many readers state that they don’t look at the publisher when they’re browsing for books, so if a book looks professional, they may look at it without even realising it’s self-published.

Definition of Success

For a traditionally-published author, this is pretty simple: getting the publishing contract is a definition of success. If you tell people you’re a published author, there’s an immediate assumption of success; after all, your book was good enough to be accepted by a publishing house. That must mean something. (I’m not saying this is true; this is the common assumption and reaction.)

There are other ways for traditionally-published authors to succeed – for example, with bestseller status – but let’s focus on those initial assumptions for now.

For a self-published author, having a book out in the world doesn’t mean success. There are no gatekeepers to get past, so no yardstick to prove that your work is actually any good. There are also the assumptions I listed above about how terrible the book must be if you had to publish it yourself. For a self-published author, success is defined not by being published (because anyone can do that), but by sales. If you can say you’ve got respectable sales, or better yet a breakout, then you can rise out of the usual morass of self-published wannabes.

In a chat with a published author, I was asked what my sales were like. When I said that I was selling over 100 books a month (this was a little while ago before the drop-off), I was met with surprise and respect. It’s better than a lot of traditionally-published books sell in a month.

So you can be seen as successful as a self-published author, but the onus is on you to prove it. No-one’s giving respect away for free.

Literary Lists and Awards

Historically, this has been the sole domain of the ‘properly’ published author (by ‘properly’, I mean traditionally-published, of course). The occasional self-published book that poked its head above the parapet of bestseller lists was quickly snapped up by a traditional publisher and validated.

Now, self-published books are making their way into the bestseller rankings on respected literary lists all by themselves (and authors are willingly turning down traditional publishing deals). They’re hitting #1 on Amazon and the New York Times lists. Runaway ebook hits are not unheard-of. Self-published books are proving that they can hold their own among the readership with their traditionally-produced brethren.

More than that, they’re winning awards. Not many, but the pressure is rising and one day the tide might turn the other way. Self-published books are clawing their way up to an even footing with traditional books; it’s a way off yet but I believe things are moving in that direction.

No doubt, there will still be literary awards who will always refuse to look at anything but exceptions in the world of self-published books, if any at all. But how long can they hold back the tide? Only time will tell, and right now, the patterns tell us which way the wind is blowing.

What does this all mean? It means that things are not even yet. Self-publishing simply doesn’t have the kudos that being traditionally published does. One day it might, but you’ll have to be patient (or battleworthy or very lucky) to get there. You have to be a huge bestseller in the self-publishing realm to be able to sidle into anything like the same position in people’s heads.

The real questions: how important is kudos to you? How willing are you to demand respect as a published author?

There’s still a part of me that would like the kudos of being traditionally published. I think that’s my own prejudices speaking, and even I know they’re outdated. I’ve tried to make peace with it and I do enjoy being self-published, but in this literary journey of ours, it’s one of the trade-offs that I had to make. And it’s one I’d make again.

Next up: Not sure! What would you like me to cover?

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  1. Lexi Revellian says:

    Agreed, people will respect you if you say you are published with a publisher they’ve heard of, like Penguin. But people on the whole know almost nothing about publishing, indie or trad, and what they do know is incredibly dated. They are largely unaware of the huge shake-up that has happened in the last few years, the influence of Amazon and digital.

    Newbie writers start from this state of ignorance (I know I did) and face a steep learning curve.

    July 18th, 2013 at 7:12 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Yup. 🙂 It’s good that the tide is turning. Here’s hoping it keeps doing that!

    July 18th, 2013 at 8:22 pm